Shrinky Dinks Thermoplastics: Toying With Cutting Edge Research

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgThere it sat- a wedge-shaped gift under the Christmas tree, distinct from all the regular oblongs and cubes that had been carefully wrapped by my wife for both the children.  As Christmas drew nearer, there was clearly a buzz over what the contents of the mysterious wedge container might be.  The outer label which simply read “From Uncle Marcus And Aunt Bridget’ gave us little to work with.  So when it was finally time to open presents, the excitement boiled over.  The glittery wrapping paper slipped off almost effortlessly as we all gazed at the words printed on the box:  Shrinky Dinks ALIEN INVASION®.  A colorful sheet that accompanied the box bore the following simple (read ‘parent-friendly’) instructions:  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, cover a baking tray with aluminum foil and bake your Shrinky Dinks for 1 to 3 minutes.

Understandably, ever since that memorable Christmas experience the oven has taken on a new function as an alien-shrinking machine (for all Charlie And The Chocolate Factory fans out there, Mike T.V’s miniaturizing television stunt was not so far-fetched after all!) .  Between meals the kitchen periodically turns into a crucible of enquiring minds as the family colors in oddly-shaped alien forms (affectionately called ‘shrinkies’) only to slam them into the oven for the three minute ritual that is now a routine at our house.  A seemingly non-ending cacophony of ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ usually follows the opening of the oven door.   Before our very eyes 10 cm-long slithers of plastic now shrink to the size of a Box Elder Bug in less time than it takes to cook a soft-boiled egg.

For those who have been keeping a close tab on the ever-growing world of micro fluidics, the Shrinky Dinks name has more recently been associated with a very different application albeit one that has its seeds in the familiar toy material (1,2).  Just two years ago a little-known University Of California researcher by the name of Michelle Khine hit the newsstands with her pioneering use of Shrinky Dinks thermoplastics. (1-2)   By exploiting the same heating process that has given my family perpetual wintertime enjoyment Khine and her team were able to shrink sheets that had been previously etched into with grooves and channels, to a size that would not only allow the efficient mixing of fluids but also provide a suitable platform for doing cell culture.  And all this with little more than a laser jet printer and a toaster oven (2).

No prizes for guessing where Khine got her inspiration from: “I remembered my favourite childhood toy and decided to try it in my kitchen one night, and it worked amazingly well!” (1).  The publication of Khine’s research in the Royal Society Of Chemistry peer-reviewed journal Lab On A Chip sparked somewhat of a revolution seemingly overnight as a result of its claims that printed features could be shrunk by as much as 63% to produce micro-channels of varying heights that would allow the passage of even large (>10 micron diameter) mammalian cells (2).  As if that were not enough to get our innovation juices going, Khine and her team have used Shrinky Dinks thermoplastic to generate rounded channels that are compatible with micro—pneumatic valves (1).  And the reproducibility of printing is not in question: “We have molded devices over ten times with the same Shrinky-Dink without any noticeable deterioration in the mold” (2). 

Khine’s paper was downloaded a staggering 18,500 times in the days following its publication (3).  Images come to mind of old Hollywood movie newspaper vendors crying “Extra, Extra, read all about It!” to the masses.    Still, feeding Shrinky Dinks sheets into a LaserJet printer is hardly what one would associate with a cutting-edge technology that will one day shape the future of biological research.  Truth be told there is one final hurdle to jump over on the road to making a fluidic microdevice.  The shrunken Shrinky Dink actually serves as a template for generating a silicone mold that must then be bonded to a glass slide.  But Khine is reassuringly confident that the entire process from design conception to the production of a fully-working device can be completed in a matter of minutes (2). 

Khine’s entrepreneurial bent has led her to found a new company called Shrink Nanotechnologies where she now serves as a member of the scientific advisory board (3-4).  The company boasts 11 pending patents and has leveraged Khine’s visionary invention to break into fields as diverse as  solar energy and medical and diagnostic sensors (4).  Which explains why Khine is a recipient of MIT Technology Review’s prestigious Top 35 Innovators  Award (4).  It is perhaps remarkable that amidst all of the publicity she has received, Khine has not forgotten the source of motivation that gave rise to her success- hours of playtime fun in the kitchen (3).  Which just go to show why we should never underestimate the rich rewards that come from the joys of a fulfilling childhood.  

Literature Cited

1. Boothby , C.(2008) Shrinky Dink microfluidics, Highlights In Chemical Technology. RSC Publishing.
2. Grimes A, Breslauer DN, Long M, Pegan J, Lee LP, & Khine M (2008). Shrinky-Dink microfluidics: rapid generation of deep and rounded patterns. Lab on a chip, 8 (1), 170-2 PMID: 18094775

3. Grant, B. (2010) Shrinky Dink-Idics, The Scientist 24, 20.

4. Shrink Nanotechnologies Website

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Robert Deyes

Robert has been a Technical Services Scientist at Promega for over 10 years. He also worked for two years as a Technical Advisor at the Paisley, Scotland facility of Life Technologies Inc. After earning his Masters in Medical Genetics from the University of Glasgow, he spent 18 months at the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France where he did research into the molecular basis of the inherited disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He also holds a BSc from the University of Portsmouth in England.

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